Column: Pens Need to Address Defense

At this rate, you’d think Oprah is the one handing out the injuries to the Penguins, especially at the blue line. It’s almost comical at this point. Almost. It’s actually not. The team is banged up, more so than at any other point this season. Big players like Kris Letang, Matt Cullen, and Brian Dumoulin are the current skaters sidelined with injuries, all of which are, or have been, week-to-week in length.

The Penguins have remained one of the top teams in the NHL despite their injury issues, but now more and more injuries are creeping up and it’s started to affect the on-ice play in a very noticeable way. The defense in particular has suffered exponentially. Being without top defenseman like Letang and Dumoulin, the Penguins have had to ask a lot of their minor-league stock in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. This is not the same as last year when a bunch of forwards were going down with injuries or underperforming where they could bring in guys like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl. Those guys were brought up with very little hesitation by head coach Mike Sullivan because he knew they were NHL-caliber players. This is not the case with the Pens’ minor-league blue-liners.

Head Coach Mike Sullivan is confident in his top-six defensemen. However, there is a major drop-off between the number six and number seven defenseman. Derrick Pouliot is the normal number seven defenseman, but judging by his play right now, if he’s the guy the Penguins are relying on to fill in during a playoff run if a Letang or Justin Schultz go down, the defensive play will suffer greatly, hindering a legit chance at another Cup run. Guys like David Warsofsky, Chad Ruhwedel, Steve Oleksy, and now recent call-up Cameron Gaunce aren’t NHL defensemen. Not saying they can’t ever be, but right now, there’s far too much of a drop-off to get a similar type of production from these Baby Pens. They’ve all had problems staying on other NHL team’s rosters in their careers. Ruhwedel is intriguing and has definitely been the best of the young defensemen, but you just wonder how long he could continue solid play, especially if he were needed in the playoffs when the games become much more intense.

With the trade deadline approaching faster and faster, General Manager Jim Rutherford needs to really consider bringing in a solid NHL defenseman. Hopes and dreams of landing a Dougie Hamilton or Kevin Shattenkirk will just be that—hopes and dreams. Rutherford isn’t the GM like Ray Shero was, trying to make the big splash in landing big names. Phil Kessel has pretty much been the lone exception there. He prefers to add established guys who have a solid game at an affordable price (Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, Ben Lovejoy, Patric Hornqvist to name a few). Plus, the Penguins just don’t have the salary cap room to acquire a high-dollar defenseman, unless Marc-Andre Fleury is the trade piece, of course. There haven’t been any other defenseman tied to the Penguins as of yet, but as the trade deadline gets closer, LTP will be on top of it. I’d still expect Rutherford to make the same type of deal he did last season when he acquired Justin Schultz. I’d expect a number five or number six defenseman, something like a Ben Lovejoy. The defense doesn’t have to be shut down, but good at pressuring forwards and getting the puck out of the defensive zone.

It’s not time to freak out, Pens fans. The defense is thin past the top six, but the offense is rocking right now. Sidney Crosby‘s line with Rust and Sheary is on fire and Evgeni Malkin is unreal as well. If the team is healthy come playoff time, expect another deep playoff run. When the defense has been healthy, they’ve been very solid. Ian Cole is having a great year and Schultz has been unreal. Daley and Olli Maatta have been a little lacking, but nothing to be overly concerned about. If I were a betting man, Rutherford will acquire a depth defenseman. Rutherford believes in the team he assembled. The main difference between last year’s team and this year’s is defensive depth and Rutherford addressed that at last year’s trade deadline. I’d expect the same this year.

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